The Times, April 14, 2008
In any other country, Liz Lochhead would qualify as a National Treasure. Author, translator, playwright, stage performer, Glasgow's poet laureate, grande dame of Scottish theatre, she bridges, with unassuming ease, the gap between the seriously literary and the outright popular. Last year she turned 60, and she takes as much pleasure from collecting her bus pass as she does from her new commission for the National Theatre of Scotland.
She shows no sign of slowing down. Next week, her latest play, Educating Agnes, a reworking of The School for Wives by Moliere, which she has written for Theatre Babel, opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
Before summer is over she should have completed her National Theatre script, Horse on Fire. On the horizon she has a teaching engagement at Eton College - a potential culture clash which she relishes. And she is mulling over the possibility of writing a new revue for this year’s Edinburgh fringe. The only thing wrong with being 60, she concludes, is her sense that life is shortening. “You’ve got a bus pass, but you don’t know how long you’ve got to run about, so you might as well have a great time.”
As she lingers over coffee at a café near her home in Glasgow’s West End, her claim that “I haven’t been this buzzed up for a while” quickly becomes utterly believable.
Since she translated Tartuffe 23 years ago, the French playwright Moliere has become a touchstone for Lochhead’s career. The words she uses to describe him – “shocking”, “cheeky”, “camp”, “outrageous” – could apply to her own verse, and her account of his death on stage in 1673, during a performance of La Malade Imaginaire, suggests that one day she may be game for the ultimate revival. “He had pulmonary TB, and he died in the wings, in a play he had written to disguise the cough he had. Imagine that. He’s extraordinary,” she says in wonder.
Educating Agnes is a comedy driven by the extremes of jealousy, and in Arnolphe, played by her old friend Kevin McMonagle, she has found a dominant central character who is the model for a certain type of man. He is, says Lochhead, “that fatal combination, a misogynist and a romantic.”
Lochhead is no French language scholar. For Educating Agnes, she worked in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library with a near-contemporary text alongside its English translation, a combination which enabled her to see the original rhyming scheme.
Like its predecessors she has rendered the play into Scots English. The significance of her chosen language may be obvious now, but it makes all the more extraordinary her past indifference to the issue of devolution. In 1979, she was in Canada during the first Scottish referendum and did not vote.
“We were feminists and the Labour Party kind of fudged it for us,” she recalls. “I wasn’t that interested and neither were my friends. I feel ashamed about that. Canadian nationalists would say: ‘What, you come from a country that’s not interested in having more say in its own affairs?’ I began to get more interested in nationalism. You could see parallels in their relationship with America.”
When Lochhead returned to Scotland – settling for good 25 years ago – her indifference melted away. By 1997, she was ready to say up all night for the referendum vote and now, though “not passionate” about independence, she sees it as a logical step.
“There have been some disappointing things,” she reckons. “The last First Minister, what was his name? Jack McConnell. Him and Bridget sitting there talking about his affair. Just so there would be no ‘smoking gun’. I thought, could there not be a time when people just say ‘I’m not going to do this stuff’? He tried pretty hard, but I was never a great fan.”
She is glad that Labour is out of power. Their “macho thing” had gone on for too long, combined with an institutional jiggery pokery in central Scotland which “they wouldn’t even see as corruption.”
An older, respectable Labour culture she knows well. Her father was a “John Smith Labourite” and she was grew up on a stolid post-war estate in Newarthill in Lanarkshire, an experience evoked in her poem, 1953. Lochhead had a gift for drawing and painting, and it was only after she had enrolled at Glasgow School of Art that she began writing.
In 1971, two of her poems won a competition. Travelling to Edinburgh to collect her prize, she met the writer Alasdair Gray on the train. They became friends and the following year, after he had been awarded an Arts Council grant, he paid for a typist to copy out her poems creating the transcript of her first book, Memo For Spring.
Lochhead stood out immediately, not just for the verve of her work, but because she had broken into a Scottish literary world dominated by male poets: Edwin Morgan, George MacKay Brown, Norman MacCaig. But although a dozen volumes of poetry have followed, she has increasingly turned to the stage, forging enduring friendships with writers and performers.
She chuckles over the Merryhell Theatre Company, whose brilliant revues she scripted with Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard. In 1982, they took a show called “The Pie of Damocles” to Edinburgh, and Lochhead vividly conjures up a triumph in the infamous bear pit of the late-night Fringe club.
“It smelt of performers’ fear. The dressing room was full of pints of urine, because everyone peed and then went on stage. It was like hell. Arthur Smith was on before us, getting booed and [the actress] Siobhan Redmond and me were quaking.
“Then Kevin McMonagle strode on very slowly in his white dinner jacket, and began to sing Tom Leonard’s My Way.” (Though some may mock/ the macho talk / upon the Walk / of No Surrender / I’ve drunk the rent / I’ve clocked the wife / I’ve spewed my ring upon the fender.) “There was silence, their jaws dropped open and then they clapped like mad. While they were still cheering, Siobhan and I ran on and did our stuff.”
Her songs from that era still captivate readers (I’m not your little woman / I’m not your better half / I’m not your nudge, your snigger / Or your belly laugh) and that warm glow could, she says, inspire another revue.
Working with young people fires her up. Five years ago she was writer in residence at Eton, and will return this autumn. The 12-year-olds wear tail coats “like Lord Snooty”, she says. “I’d be in a nice sitting room and they’d come in and toast crumpets and do their stuff. I would go, ‘Take me to Hotel du Posh.’ But I love it.”
Closer to home, she is friendly with 28-year-old playwright, Daniel Jackson, who has just won a residency at London’s Royal Court. “I think I’ve got a mentoring streak. Maybe it’s because I’ve got no kids. It’s exciting being around people who are beginning to find out things, especially people like Daniel. I think he is a more talented writer than me, but I’ve more experience.
“I dreamt on Sunday – I must be feeling slightly vulnerable – that Daniel was directing a piece of mine. He took me aside and said ‘This is shite.’ It took me all Sunday to forgive him. And it was just a dream.”
But only slightly vulnerable. Lochhead likes the notion of being a mad old woman, and revels in free travel on her bus pass, delighting in the fact that her husband, Tom Logan, six years her junior, has to pay full fare. And being 60 can be fun, she says. “In your 30s, as a woman, you’re scared to be too friendly with people in case they think you are trying to be too attractive. Do you know what I mean? All that bullshit just falls away.”
* Educating Agnes opens April 23, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow